Rev Irene Monroe

Gladys Bentley: Bad as She Wants to Be

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | February 04, 2008 12:20 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: African-American, Black History Month, black women, gay history, Gladys Bentley, lesbians, LGBT history, relationships

Black History Month. Black History Month is that time of year when the achievements and courage of people of African descent are acknowledged and celebrated. However, for decades now, Black History Month has not once acknowledged or celebrated the contributions of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Our omission from the annals of black history would lead you to believe that the only shakers and movers in the history of people of African descent in the U.S. were and still are heterosexuals. And because of this heterosexist bias, the sheroes and heroes of LGBT people of African decent -- like Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Bayard Rustin -- are known and lauded within a subculture of black life.

Along with the pantheon of noted black leaders who are always lauded this month, I want to personally celebrate the courage and strength of sistah-warrior Gladys Bentley.

The invisibility of bisexuals, transgenders, queers and women of color is not because there is a paucity of us that exist or made history, but instead our invisibility is evidence of how race, gender and sexual politics of the dominant culture are reinforced in ours.

As we move into Black History Month to be followed by Women's History Month, I am reminded of Gladys Bentley, a 250-pound African-American lesbian known as "America's Greatest Sepia Piano Player" and the "Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs."

Bentley's fall from the entertainment spotlight, however, is a cautionary tale about what can happen to us during a repressive political era when both church and state are our enemies.

Bentley is, therefore, best understood in a context of not only how gender roles and sexual relations in the 1950s influenced, shaped and policed LBTQ women in the Black Church, and by extension the entire black community, but also how the homophobia of the Black Church exploited the repressive era of McCarthyism to force Bentley to conform and deny her lesbianism.

A talented pianist and blues singer, and one of the most notorious and successful African-American lesbians in the U.S. during the Harlem Renaissance, Bentley (1907-1960) cultivated a large LGBTQ following up until the 1950s. As an African-

American woman whose success derived from her raunchy and salacious lyrics to popular tunes, Bentley not only openly sang about sex, but she also openly lived and celebrated her sexual orientation as an out lesbian.

"It seems I was born different. At least, I always thought so," Bentley told Ebony Magazine back in the '50s. "? From the time I can remember anything, even as I was toddling, I never wanted a man to touch me. ? Soon I began to feel more comfortable in boys' clothes than in dresses."

Known to perform in her infamous white tuxedo and top hat, Bentley's gender-bending would label her by today's term as a "stone butch." But in black queer parlance of that era, she was a "bulldagger." And the police consistently harassed her for wearing men's clothing.

By the '50s, the country was on a campaign to restore traditional gender roles that were disrupted by W.W. II, and McCarthyism was its policing mechanism. Special attention, however, was given to LGBTQ people.

With the absence of 16 million men, predominately white, in the workforce, women, and ethnic and queer minorities filled those vacancies.

Women of the time not only transgressed traditional career opportunities, but also traditional dress codes. Women wearing pants to work and on the street, and their availability to purchase pants in department stories, gave women in the '40s and '50s the freedom to dress down and still be viewed as acceptable.

For gender-bending lesbians like Bentley, the wearing of pants - usually confined to the privacy of their home, lesbian bars and on the performance stage - was a welcomed freedom. However, without the consent of the time, except in the private and acceptable spaces where pants were permissible, Bentley wore pants since the '20s.

As troubling as that was, especially given her public lesbianism, Bentley accosted the sanctity of marriage with her active participation in this country's racial and gender obsession - interracial marriage.

Had her "woman-friend" been African-American, their coupling would have clearly been subjected to condemnation and jeering, but their same-gender loving relationship would not have conjured up the wrath, fear and disgust that interracial marriage did. With anti-miscegenation laws operating in all states until 1967, and with LGBTQ people today being denied both the right of both state and church weddings, Bentley single-handedly performed a coup d'etat against the institution of marriage and the prohibition against miscegenation. She married her white girlfriend in a civil wedding ceremony.

To punish her, the forces of McCarthyism made Bentley conform, the Black Church stopped railing against her, and the black press lauded her conformity. For supposedly taking female hormones to cure her of her lesbianism, Bentley wrote an article for Ebony Magazine proclaiming, "I am woman again!"

Now as a churchwoman and ordained minister, the ceremonial act of compulsory heterosexuality had to be consummated. She married a man, albeit 16 years her junior.

With the church's belief in a heterosexual paradigm as the model to showcase black humanity in order to win God-given civil rights, the dynamic between the black press and the Black Church set up a new sexual McCarthyism.

The cautionary tale here is that it is not so different today.

[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This post is part of our ongoing coverage of Black History Month focusing on the LGBT community.

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With anti-miscegenation laws operating in all states until 1967, and with LGBTQ people today being denied both the right of both state and church weddings, Bentley single-handedly performed a coup d'etat against the institution of marriage and the prohibition against miscegenation.

Right on, Bentley. :)